Apr 12 2010
What’s that you say? You want to learn about Nuclear Power? I can help you with that. Let’s get started then!
What, exactly, is nuclear power? Well, it works like coal power in a lot of ways. It involves harnessing the energy (as heat) produced in a reaction to boil water and create steam that to spin a turbine, which in turn produces electricity. Although in the case of nuclear power, we harness the energy of a nuclear reaction (fission) as opposed to a chemical reaction like burning a fossil fuel. Overall, about 6% of the world’s energy needs are met with nuclear power, with around 400 active nuclear reactors on the planet.
The reaction that we use in nuclear power production is called fission. Fission involves firing a neutron at a large and unstable isotope. If the neutron collides with the nucleus of this unstable isotope, the isotope breaks into two fission fragments. This breaking apart of the isotope releases a huge amount of energy, as well as a number of free, fast-moving neutrons. These neutrons can go on to collide with other unstable isotopes, causing them to break, a chain reaction. In nuclear power production, the unstable isotope of choice is Uranium-235, one of the three naturally occurring isotopes of Uranium on earth. Before it can be used as fuel, however, it must first be mined and refined. Maybe my friend Dr. Professor Ledgewick Brambleberry XXIII and his hideous assistant Jennings can help clarify:
What we know as nuclear power uses a controlled version of this reaction to produce steam. The reaction is controlled in a light-water reactor, and involves the use of control rods and water to keep the reaction from occurring too quickly.
Theoretically, we could also use nuclear fusionas a power source. Fusion is the reaction that occurs in the sun. In this process, two lighter elements (Hydrogen) fuse together under tremendous pressure at extremely high temperatures, forming a new nucleus of a heavier element such as Helium. We cannot, as of yet, actually create a controlled version of this reaction. Once again, Dr. Professor Brambleberry:
One of the main concerns associated with nuclear power is radioactivity. Because the Uranium fuel used in fission is so unstable, it spontaneously decays. The products of this decay are harmful to humans, and can potentially cause burns or alter DNA. Nuclear decay can involve the release of alpha particles (two protons, two neutrons), beta particles (a free electron), and gamma rays (high-energy waves). These particle are released by the wastes of nuclear fission as well. Now to Jennings, once again.
Special thanks to Ian Noblitt for his part in the making of the videos.
Sources: Environmental Science: Problems, Concepts, and Solutions; 12th editionby G. Tyler Miller, Jr. and Scott Spoolman